As the first fatality of the 2011-2012 snow season is reported (a snowmobiler in Prince George, B.C.), Kristie Simpson muses that the timing for the new Yukon avalanche forecast system couldn’t be more crucial.

Simpson, a board member of the Yukon Avalanche Association and owner/operator of Avalanche North, is one of several dedicated volunteers who have been heavily involved in making the new forecast system a reality.

The Yukon Avalanche Association and the Canadian Avalanche Centre worked together to secure almost $1 million in funding for their “Yukon Avalanche Forecasting and Education Initiative”.

The program has three main goals: to develop and deliver public avalanche forecasts and warnings; to conduct and make available avalanche terrain mapping of high-use backcountry areas; and to deliver an extensive education and outreach campaign.

The first goal of delivering avalanche forecasts to the Yukon public has Simpson very excited.

“In October, we put up three weather stations,” she explains.

“Two are in the White Pass area – one in the valley bottom, one on a ridge top. The third is in the Wheaton River Valley.”

Simpson says this distribution will allow the association to cover the physiographic differences across the region, in particular the differences between continental and maritime air masses.

“We will also be able to help Environment Canada improve their public weather forecasts by sharing our data with them,” she adds.

The plan is to use the data collected to create avalanche forecasts that will be distributed online via the Canadian Avalanche Centre’s pre-existing system.

To support this, the Yukon association has hired two new staff members, an avalanche field technician and a field assistant, who will begin work on December 1.

The hope is that forecasts will be online and publically available by January 1.

“We are already receiving some data now,” Simpson explains.

“But we still have a few glitches to work out. One weather station needs a new antenna, which is arriving next week, and we need to get the data storage system set up.”

Simpson stresses that the new system will be of use to more than just recreational enthusiasts.

“Search and rescue, conservation officers, researchers, and technicians working on government monitoring programs are just a handful of the stakeholders who should find this new program useful for their work.”

Over the winter, there will be ongoing visits to Yukon from members of the Canadian Avalanche Centre.

Although the main purpose of these visits is to assist with implementing the forecast system and provide training to Yukon Avalanche Association’s new employees, there is a tangible offshoot in the realm of public education and outreach.

“We have created a series of public events throughout the winter season,” Simpson says. “This will take the form of lectures and films, along with short field courses, all of which are open to the Yukon public”

The association is also taking the opportunity to expand its work with schools, she adds.

“We are working with the schools to develop some avalanche-related curriculum for Yukon students.” The first step is to share Canadian Avalanche Centre toolboxes with Yukon classrooms.

There are a number of skilled and aspiring avalanche professionals throughout the territory, Simpson points out.

The new forecast and education Initiatives will provide them with a range of professional development opportunities, including the chance to assist Yukon Avalanche Association employees in the field.

The goal is to expand the depth of knowledge and experience of the Yukon avalanche community as a whole, she says.

More information about the Yukon Avalanche Association and its programs is available at http://www.yukonavalanche.ca/

Amber Church is a painter, writer and sports enthusiast. You can reach her at sports@whatsupyukon.com.